Philomath Fire & Rescue’s internal challenges this year led to a parting of the ways over the past week between the district’s board of directors and Tom Miller, the fire chief who had been leading the local department for more than six years.
Now, the task of leading the local contingent of emergency responders transitions to Chancy Ferguson. Working in Philomath as the deputy fire chief since June 2019, the 40-year-old Ferguson was appointed by the board on Sept. 12 to serve as the district’s lead administrator on an interim basis.
Following the board’s unanimous decision to put Ferguson in the fire chief’s seat, he immediately offered his thoughts to those in attendance at the meeting. His message was clear with a focus on the local fire district’s team — paid staff, volunteers and partners.
“My people are extremely important to me and I have an extremely professional crew that’s extremely proficient and are passionate about what they do,” Ferguson said in a Sept. 14 interview with the Philomath News. “It’s my job to lead that group and build out of all those past struggles that we’ve had. Really, right now, my 100% focus is building relationships back up and taking care of my people.”
Philomath Fire & Rescue’s paid staff includes Ferguson, Capt. Rich Saalsaa as fire and life safety officer, three lieutenant positions with Andrew Licon, Scott Moser and Lindsay Taylor, daytime firefighter Levi Schell and administrative assistant Lillee Rodriguez. The district is currently accepting applications for the administrative assistant position.
“Operationally, we’re extremely sound and again, I can’t be more proud of my folks,” Ferguson said. “I think that’s demonstrated this summer very, very well.”
Ferguson referred to Fire & Rescue’s rapid response to contain the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo grandstands fire in late June.
“It was an incredible effort and for being younger crews that I have, they made extremely wise choices that saved that structure as a whole,” Ferguson said.
He also mentioned as an example a recent technical ladder rescue of a construction worker who fell through an opening in the roof.
“They performed extremely well and that’s across the board,” Ferguson said. “I have worked really, really hard since my start here to build a culture of training.”
Ferguson lists mission readiness, or emergency response, as Fire & Rescue’s No. 1 priority, followed by training and then project work. Daily goals include maintaining a caring approach toward others while on emergency calls, self-improvement and bettering the organization.
“At this point, I don’t even need to be there to ask for that,” Ferguson said. “It’s just the culture of the department to better ourselves.”
Ferguson said one of the most impressive things he’s seen is the advancements witnessed with senior students that have been on the job for the past two or three years.
“They’re taking on a teaching role all by themselves and fostering bringing in those new people … the culture has gotten to the point where that’s the norm,” Ferguson said. “I’ve watched our experience levels and capabilities dramatically climb in the last three years.”
A couple of days into his reassignment, Ferguson wasn’t 100% sure what the long-term organization of the fire department might look like. For example, it’s possible some of his duties as deputy fire chief will be handled in part by another staff member.
The fire district’s board made no announcements at the Sept. 12 meeting about any plan that might go into place as a job search begins to fill the fire chief’s seat permanently. It’s unknown if the board sees Ferguson as a solution or if they would look outside of the organization for a candidate.
“My whole outlook right now is making sure my people are OK and building my team,” Ferguson said. “Internally, we’ve been a mess, I’m not going to lie, but externally we work hard and I think we do an incredible job for our community.”
Ferguson’s first day on the job at Philomath Fire & Rescue was June 3, 2019, after he had worked for 15 years with the La Grande Fire Department. His early career also included volunteer firefighter in Molalla and seasonal firefighter for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“Philomath is a changing community, as we all know, and we have to have to plan what that looks like for the future … what’s the right way to grow?” Ferguson said. “As chief, that’s something that I’ve got to work on with the board and all of our partners — the city, other fire districts — on what is the appropriate way for us to grow.”
One step in the right direction appears to be finding success to bolster Philomath’s number of volunteers.
“The volunteer environment has changed dramatically over the last several years, along with the paid staff environment,” Ferguson said. “There’s now a national shortage of firefighters that’s never been seen before.”
Philomath Fire & Rescue is not immune to those volunteer shortages.
“I would say it’s a concern but I would also say that I have a core group of local volunteers that are extremely dedicated,” Ferguson said. “I have volunteers that are willing to get up at 3 in the morning multiple times a week to come in and just sit in the bay and cover for the next emergency.”
Philomath Fire & Rescue’s Station 201 on Main Street will welcome the public on Oct. 15 for the district’s open house, an event that’s been very popular in past years. The fire district partners with Strengthening Rural Families and also serves as a health fair.